STATION 1, The Big House. It’s morning, 8 am on a Tuesday in June. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but being at a station with 4 rigs and 20 firefighters including the Battalion Chief, I didn’t expect quiet. The doors to the kitchen were closed, but the hum inside was where the action was. I found everyone in the kitchen, coffee on, some reading the paper, news. Activity, preparing for the morning meeting, some firefighters hanging over from the night before, late relief.
The crews had several runs in the night, that’s the usual downtown. On SDFD shifts are 24 hours starting at 8:00am, the schedule is day on, day off, rotating for four shifts, then alternating four and six days off. Ten 24 hour shifts per month, 56 hour work weeks. Days off are accumulated and used for sick or vacation time. Family emergencies, rest. The shifts vary depending on the stations, some are hugely busy, some stations with 20-25 runs a day per crew. All are mostly medical aid runs, but a city this size needs trained firefighters staffing the stations at all times. Each crew consists of a Captain, Engineer, Firefighter/ Paramedic, and Firefighter. All are EMT certified. When someone calls 911 with a medical emergency, dispatch will evaluate and radio for a fire engine and ambulance. Fire Stations are staffed 24/7 so almost always quickest to respond to any emergencies. I know a bit about SDFD, my husband, Kevin, has been on the job since he turned 21, this is his 31st year with the department, and we’ve been together for 15 years. In that time I’ve heard a few stories, but I really don’t know anything.
At the meeting I’m introduced to the crews, bumble through what I’m doing. Everyone nods, it makes some sense, it’s a good idea but nobody really likes to have their pictures taken. Not really. Lots of pauses. The first crew I’m with is the engine company (Engines carry water, shorter ladders), our first run is within a few minutes after the meeting. It’s a medical aid, it’s almost always a medical aid.
Justin, who’s sitting next to me in the rig tells me a lot. Justin has unbelievably huge arms, he’s a Cross Fit competitor, but he doesn’t tell me that, someone else does. He tells me about the regulars they see on the street. One guy ‘Ben’ (not his real name) has been trying to die on the street for a while now. Ben is a veteran, from probably Vietnam. People call 911 when they see him sleeping on the street, he’s always apologetic when the firefighters arrive. People call, but don’t stick around, don’t ask if he needs help. They call and move on. ‘Ben’, so far, is always just sleeping. But that’s not our run, The medical aid is for 46 year old man who looks 80.
I’ll be 46 later this year….. its shocking when I get a good up close look at what the street does to people. He’s homeless. He’s in bad shape, maybe difficulty breathing. Maybe an overdose. He doesn’t feel well, but stable when the ambulance gets there, the crews work together to put him on a stretcher and take him to the hospital. His belongings, probably everything he owns are placed in plastic bags and go with him. Everyone is kind, its heavy for me seeing this, so close and everyone is still cautious with me. This is so far out of my everyday, my life does not have much ‘street’ in it. The heaviness is not lost on me, these are human beings, and humans who care for them.
Back at the station I take some pictures, it’s an older station from the 70’s with a lot of history. The sleeping quarters are dorm-style with a curtain separating the cubicles. The hallway walls are lined with classic old pictures from the past.
It’s an unusually quiet start, the next run doesn’t come for another 20 minutes, this time its at a senior living facility. Station 1 runs medical aids there a lot, the crew are regulars, everyone knows them.
We enter the building with white speckled linoleum floors and dingy navajo-white walls. It strikes me that there are no pictures hanging up, no plants, no decorations at all, save a plastic tree outside the front entry. We take an elevator up to the 4th floor and I wait in the hallway, I wander down the corridor, staying out of the way. The ambulance crew gets there soon after, so there are 6 people in uniform and a social service worker. The patient, lying on the tiles of his apartment looks to be sitting up against the wall. He’s talking quietly and answering questions. I stay outside his room, but even out there I can’t breathe through my nose, the stench is sour and pungent. I can see inside that a container of urine has spilled and some has dried up in his room on the floor. There is no furniture save a matt on the floor next to a TV.,
and a table with a small cross on it.
The social worker walks out with us as the man is taken on a gurney down the elevator and his door is shut and locked. This is downtown San Diego and among the new buildings and bustling city, here is real poverty.
Back on the rig there is some discussion of bedside manner and its clear that this crew takes pride in how they treat people. I’m silent and try to be invisible and they talk about things like Im not there. It’s an interesting mix of real serious business, and a lightness that is easy. We realize after awhile that my microphone is turned off and I tell them I’ve been talking the whole time, we all laugh. We go out of service and are heading the repair facility for a faulty sensor. With the runs so far I doubt anyone will even remember any part of that day, they all mix together as the days roll into weeks. Every firefighter has a few stories that stick with them. The Captain tells me as his eyes well up, recalling something he doesn’t share… everyone on the job has a haunting story. Some go home and tell someone, some don’t. But this is just an ordinary day, it’s really nothing remarkable.
After lunch I switch to the Truck Company with a captain I’ve met before a few times, he used to work with my husband. The truck is a tiller-truck with a driver on the back to steer the back half of the rig. The entire rig is nearly half a block long. The Engineer drives and Captain sits in front, working a rotation with this crew is a probationary firefighter, a tall very fit African-American woman in her first year on the job. She played basketball for SDSU and is respectful and quiet which is expected of probies.
Training continues throughout the first two years and this captain takes training seriously. We visit several apartments in the district. The crew discusses construction, architecture, windows, fire walls and exits. Captain is an expert in construction, a contractor from before, so a lot of time is spent going over framing and how fires burn in old buildings. The first building we go to was located on a corner and built in the 30’s with classic lap strake siding. Wood framed, with original panel windows. It’s a beautiful old building, two stories, off the street with an enormous sprawling willow tree out front… but all wood construction with central hallways and only two exits, so particularly hazardous in a fire.
The second building we go into is a low-income rental near the freeway. Rooms rent with a hot plate, common hallway bathroom, maybe one shower per floor. This building has narrow entry ways, and the original elevator, with some tags dating it back to 1926, was out of service and under repair. The technician was working on it so I get to peer in at the fixtures and get a few shots.
The crew uses the fire escape outside to get on the roof and I take pictures, then the repairman opens the access door so I can use the staircase. On the roof the crew talks about the outside fascia and how buildings like this burn. The structure is brick with reinforcements, but old. Its eerie being with firefighters in a building like this, it brings forward in everyone’s mind the what-ifs and tenants peek out of their rooms to check. The walls are stained and smell like stale cigarettes. This building has 4 floors with nearly 10 units on each floor… it’s a logistical nightmare for me imagining a fire.
We look at a few other buildings before navigating our way through gridlock traffic back to the station. I’ve taken over 200 pictures in the 8 hours I’ve been there, but more than pictures I’ve gotten a deeper understanding of what individuals sign on for with this job. I talk the crews into a few more quick pictures but everyone is pretty done and my time is up.
Many thanks to the City of San Diego and Station 1, The Big House, for welcoming me along.